Early-season training camps: performance boosting or sapping?

How effective are early-season training camps at building fitness and can you have too much of a good thing? Andrew Hamilton looks at the evidence…

In the northern hemisphere at least, December 1st marks the first day of meteorological winter. Faced with short days, and plenty of snow, frost, ice and rain, many athletes will be longing for spring to arrive, especially once the Christmas festivities are over. With warmer weather and more daylight, outdoors training becomes easier and more pleasant. But for those who are impatient to wait until then (even March can deliver brutally cold and snowy weather), one option is to book an early-season training camp.

Early-season training camps are typically held in February and March, and are located in warmer climes. In Europe, training camps in the Balearic and Canary Isles of Spain are particularly popular with athletes from northern countries. In Canada and northern states of the US, Florida, California and Arizona are popular venues. These early-season training camps have become very popular for athletes living in areas where winters are harsh and/or prolonged. This is particularly the case with cyclists who have to contend with snow and ice, and where much of the winter season is spent cycling on a cycling home-trainer, in the gym or pursuing other sports in an effort to cross train. While these other modes can help maintain a base level of fitness, they lack specificity. Runners or cyclists who cross train are not targeting the key muscles involved in their main sport. But even cyclists riding a stationary bike won’t experience the same patterns of muscle recruitment that are generated when riding out on the road.

Early-season training camps: benefits and drawbacks

The main goal of early-season training camps is to increase the volume of sport-specific training that can be undertaken in the early part of spring, with a view to increasing levels of base fitness and polishing up key skills that may have gone a bit ‘rusty’ over the winter period. The idea is that athletes such as cyclists and triathletes can hit the ground running (no pun intended!) as they prepare for the first competitions of the season (often scheduled around late April).

There’s good evidence in the literature that a block of high-volume training lasting 1-3 weeks can enhance a number of aspects of endurance fitness. These include measures such as maximum oxygen uptake, functional power at lactate threshold (the maximum amount of power that can be sustained over a given period of time before fatiguing lactate accumulates) and running/cycling economy (how efficient the muscles are at converting chemical energy expended in the muscles to forward motion)(1,2).

However, despite the potential benefits, some researchers have questioned the value of training camps aimed at providing a block of high-volume training. That’s because some recent studies (in groups of trained cyclists) have shown that such periods of training may result in over-reaching, leading to increased levels of fatigue, a reduced sense of vigour and a poorer general mood state(3,4) – not what an athlete wants at anytime in the season, let alone the start!

What can an early-season training camp achieve?

In theory, an early-season training camp should result in fitness gains, but do these benefits come with the drawbacks of fatigue and mental exhaustion? On the one hand, you might think this is unlikely since most athletes will be fresh and comparatively well rested after the winter period. On the other hand, fitness levels entering such a training camp following the winter period will inevitably be lower, which means that high volumes of even quite modest-intensity training will produce a bigger loading effect than would otherwise be the case.

Surprisingly, there’s very little scientific data on the actual benefits of otherwise of early-season training camps. However, a newly published study by Canadian scientists from the University of Quebec provides some fascinating insight into this question(5). In this study, the researchers assessed the physiological adaptations (fitness gains) and measure mood outcomes following a cycling training camp in 14 competitive cyclists (8 males, 6 females).

The cyclists were all living in Canada and had been mainly indoors cycling training through the long Canadian winter. Before setting off for the training camps located in Cuba and the south of the USA, all the cyclists underwent fitness testing and psychometric testing using a standardised ‘Profile of Mood States’ (POMS) analysis in order to assess their mood state and how they ‘felt’ – see figure 1. The fitness tests included peak maximum power, peak power at lactate threshold and cycling economy. Following the training camp attendance, all the cyclists were then retested upon their return.


Figure 1: Example of POMS scoring

Mood states are known to affect performance and be affected by training load. In the above figure, POMS scores are shown for two athletes during the later stages of the London Marathon.


The training camp durations for each cyclist varied, but averaged around seven days for the females and eleven days for the males. During their training camp stays, all the cyclists kept meticulous records of each day’s training durations and intensities. This was achieved by using training zones based on each cyclist’s maximum heart rate determine in pre-camp testing. Seven training zones were calculated and divided into two major zones: A) below the lactate threshold (zones 1, 2 and 3), and B) above lactate threshold (zones 4, 5, 6 and 7). Using the cyclists’ training zones, the researchers calculated their total load at the camp using a tried and tested formula developed by Grappe(6):

Total load = time spent in each heart rate zone multiplied by the value (1-7) of each zone

Training camp results

The key findings by the researchers were as follows:

  • Peak power and peak sustainable power before the onset of lactate threshold were both significantly increased (by around 3%).
  • Cycling economy was also increased (by around 3% – a significant improvement).
  • The Profile of Mood State questionnaire results showed that the negative subcategories “Tension-Anxiety”, “Confusion”, “Fatigue” significantly DECREASED after the training camp. In other words, rather than a negative effect, the training had boosted the cyclists’ sense of mental well being.

The above findings make for encouraging reading but they can only be understood in the context of the training loadings. Analysis of the cyclists’ records showed that the men and women both averaged around 3 hours and 20 minutes of cycling each day – much more than they had been doing over the winter but by no means excessive. More revealing was the intensities; both the male and female cyclists spent the vast bulk of their time (91%) training in zones 1-3 – ie below lactate threshold. Only 9% of the time was spent at or above it.

In terms of perceived effort, this equates to mostly easy-moderate riding with only the odd harder effort thrown in. Despite this relatively low intensity however, the cyclists experienced very significant gains in key measures of fitness related to endurance performance. Another bonus was that far from harming it, the training camp boosted mental well being. Some of this may have simply been due to the fact that being able to ditch the indoor training and return to their favourite activity in a warmer, sunnier climate may have had a mood-enhancing effect, helping to counterbalance the increased workload during the camp. However, it’s very likely that the relatively low intensity also helped ensure that the cyclists’ mood states, were not negatively affected. Harder training may have produced slightly larger gains in fitness but would have undoubtedly been counterproductive in terms of how the cyclists ‘felt’ on their return.

In conclusion

The study makes for encouraging reading; if you have the time and money, there’s convincing evidence that an early-season training camp could help get your season off to a flying start. The caveat to this study is that it only contained a small number of subjects and the training of the subjects over the previous winter period wasn’t standardised. Nevertheless, the findings make sense, especially in the context of the cyclist’s training over that period.

Regarding the amount and type of training undertaken at any training camp you might attend in the early season, it’s important to emphasise that these positive physical and psychological results in this study were achieved with quite modest training volumes, which were mainly low intensity in nature. While it might be tempting to ‘pack in the miles and push on’ after a long winter, the overall balance of evidence remains that this approach could be counterproductive. In terms of the more traditional ‘zone’ training bands you might be familiar with (see figure 2), this means carrying out most of your training in zone 1, with very little in zone 2 and perhaps the odd foray into zone 3. Indeed, this approach is proven to work well more generally, and should something you remember when planning your sessions in 2019!


Figure 2: Training zones 1, 2 and 3


References

  1. J Appl Physiol, 2009;107(1): 128-138
  2. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2002; 34(11): 1725-1732
  3. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 2009; 19(3): 433-441
  4. J Strength Cond Res, 2010; 24(10): 2604-2612
  5. J Hum Kinet. 2018 Oct 15;64:137-146
  6. Grappe F. Cycling and performance optimization. (2nd ed.). Bruxelles : De Boeck; 2009

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